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News > Alumni Stories > Remembering Bill Tutte

Remembering Bill Tutte

The "legendary code-breaker" Bill Tutte was a student at Hills Road - then known as Cambridge and County High School for Boys
Bill Tutte (14 May 1917 - 2 May 2002)
Bill Tutte (14 May 1917 - 2 May 2002)

Only recently have the astonishing achievements of Bill Tutte during the Second World War come to light. Bill Tutte was responsible for one of the greatest codebreaking achievements of Bletchley Park during WW2 when he cracked the Lorenz cipher, also known as the Tunny, which was used to communicate by the highest ranking German generals including Hitler. He was also a pupil at Hills Road, then called Cambridge and County High School for Boys.

Tutte was born in Newmarket on 14th May 1917.

He won a scholarship in 1927 but for family reasons did not attend that year. The next year he took the same examinations and again won a scholarship, leading him to start his study at Cambridge and County High School for Boys.
When remembering his time at the school, Tutte quoted:

“I remember with pleasure my courses in English history. But I was chiefly interested in the scientific subjects, including mathematics. One stimulus that seems to me supremely important came from outside the regular curriculum. In the school library I came upon a copy of Rouse Ball’s Mathematical Recreations and Essays [Ball 1892]. There I found much information about graph theory and more general combinatorics. I read the basic theory of the Four Colour Problem and a discussion, without proofs, of Petersen’s work on cubic graphs. This was my first encounter with the subject in which I was later to specialize.”

“In 1933, at the age of sixteen, I had to decide whether to leave school or to stay on for another two years, preparing for University. I stayed on, my scholarship continuing.”

After finishing at Cambridge and County High School for Boys - now Hills Road Sixth Form College - in 1935, Tutte went on to study Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. He regularly attended the lectures of the Trinity Mathematical Society and it was here that his interest grew. His Professor referred him on for an interview at Bletchley Park and he started there in 1941.

At Bletchley Park, Tutte contributed immensely to their achievements. Despite never having seen the machine before, Tutte was able to deduce the structure of the Lorenz cipher. This machine produced Tunny ciphers, which converted messages into cipher by their attachment to the output of a teleprinter. It was Tutte who worked out the theory for breaking the Tunny ciphers (some say this was a greater achievement than Turing's!). This was critical as it provided the Allies with top secret information on Hitler’s military strategy!

Tutte's work all led to the construction of the "British Tunny", a replica of the Lorenz machine, which was later replaced by the Colossus. This machine was designed by Tommy Flowers, with major input from Max Newman and others. However, without the work of Tutte this would not have been possible.

Tutte later went on to become a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) and sadly died on 2nd May 2002. 
A memorial was unveiled in September 2014 in Tutte’s hometown of Newmarket to publicly recognise and commemorate his achievements as a ‘legendary codebreaker’.

D. H. Younger, Royal Society Publishing, 2012
Biographical Memoirs, William Thomas Tutte. 14 May 1917-2 May 2002  [pdf]  [Accessed 11th November 2015]

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